Oct 22 2017

What exactly is happening to our honey bees

Published by at 3:47 pm under Damngerous Chemicals

What’s happening to our honey bees?
Pesticides are threatening the survival of this important player in our ecosystem.

Honeybees are one of nature’s most valuable working insects. Their ability to take nectar from flowers and turn it into honey as well as their role as pollinators is short of a miracle. They extract nectar from flowers, store it in their tiny stomachs and then transport it back to their hive. In the hive, it is passed from bee to bee until the moisture is reduced and what remains is honey. The nectar can also be stored in the honeycomb cells before the bees do their work which kick starts the evaporation process. After the bees create the honey, they store it in the honeycomb cells and cap it with beeswax from which the adult bees and newborns will feed.

Honey is a pure and natural sweetener enjoyed by people around the world. And the pollination process is essential for the reproduction of flowers and fruits. But unfortunately, humans have found a way to interrupt this beautiful and natural process by introducing and overusing pesticides in our environment.  Researchers have found that a large percentage of honey is contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides. This pesticide is harmful to the bees and has ramifications for humans too. 1*

Ten years ago, US beekeepers reported that thousands of their hives were suddenly absent of bees. And  it was not just the United States that was losing their honey bees…beekeepers all over the world were having the same problem. This caused a global concern about a condition which became known as colony collapse disorder or CCD. Additionally, it was reported that we were losing many populations of wild bees. Without wild bees pollinating our plants, it can result in tragic consequences not just for the bees, but for humans as bees pollinate approximately one-third of the plants that we eat.  This invaluable service these pollinators provide is valued at $168 billion per year worldwide.(1,2)*

Neonicotinoids became popular in the 1990s to target crop destroying insects. They work by attacking the central nervous system of the insects without having the same effect on humans.  They are widely used in Canada, the US and around the world. They are applied as a coating to the seeds of such widely grown crops such as corn, canola and soybeans. (Residues have also been found in the pollen of wildflowers growing near these crops and in nearby streams). Working systemically, these pesticides move throughout the growing plant, making them toxic to the targeted insects. The problem is that they end up in the pollen of these plants, which is then captured by our pollinators, who are also affected by these chemicals.  Studies have shown it affects their survival by hurting their ability to reproduce, forage and fight off pathogens. (2,3,4,5)*

In the October issue of Science, researchers did a study in which they were able to look at 198 samples of honey from around the world — the first study done on such a global level. The findings shed light on how  widely honeybees are exposed to these pesticides.  Three of the four honey samples tested contained “…measurable levels of at least one of five common neonicotinoids,..” Traces of the pesticide were even found in honey from remote islands with little agriculture. 3*

“…We assessed the global exposure of pollinators to neonicotinoids by analyzing 198 honey samples from across the world. We found at least one of five tested compounds (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in 75% of all samples, 45% of samples contained two or more of these compounds, and 10% contained four or five. Our results confirm the exposure of bees to neonicotinoids in their food throughout the world…”3*

While the compounds found were at levels considered “safe for human consumption” it demonstrates how honey bees and their habitats are being affected.  With global pollination on the decline, there are great concerns for biodiversity and our ecosystem on the whole. Neonicotinoids have been identified as a key factor responsible for this decline. While pesticides are a major contributor to pollinator decline, there are other factors affecting our bee populations as well such as habitat loss, parasite infections, other insects and disappearing wildflowers that bees rely on for food.3*

Most concerns about bees have centered on the European honeybee,  which people have spread around the world as a crop pollinator. “…But native pollinators can be exposed to neonicotinoids, too, and are often more vulnerable to the pesticides’ effects. Bumblebees and sweat bees tend to live in smaller hives than honeybees, so just a few foragers can more quickly spread contamination to the whole colony…”3*

In an experiment at Royal Holloway University of London, scientists set up a laboratory experiment with bumblebee queens in which the queens were given a syrup containing traces of a neonicotinoid pesticide called thiamethoxam, in amounts replicating which bees might be exposed to living near fields of neonic-treated canola. The results showed Bumblebee queens exposed to the pesticide were 26 percent less likely to lay eggs, compared to queens that weren’t exposed to the pesticide. These findings were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.2*

“Without the queen laying eggs, there is no colony,” says Nigel Raine, one of the scientists who conducted the experiment. The fear is that the decline in reproduction  will eventually lead to the species’ demise.

The European Union imposed a temporary moratorium on use of neonicotinoid pesticides on many crops in 2013, and is now considering proposals to make that moratorium permanent. Of course pesticide companies and some farmers are fighting those restrictions. Their argument is that “…the moratorium has led to lower yields of canola and an increase in spraying of other pesticides to fight insects that previously were controlled by neonicotinoid coatings on seeds…”2*

Various countries, including the United States, are exploring ways to protect our honeybees, and also the use of this pesticide. As with all things, “exploring” takes time, and big money gets in the way. Hopefully, it won’t be too late to protect these precious creatures.


Until next time,





  1. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-08/colony-collapse-ten-years-after-crisis-what-is-happening-to-bees/8507408
  2. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/08/14/542895824/popular-pesticides-keep-bumblebees-from-laying-eggs
  3. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/1091
  4. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/much-worlds-honey-now-contains-pesticides-harm-bees
  5. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/much-of-the-worlds-honey-laced-with-pesticides-study-finds/article36500549/

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